The Foundations of Character

 

Anxiety by Jakki Oakes

Rather than present you with another discussion on the application of a psychological phenomenon or principle to the writing of fiction, here I intend to offer you something a little different. This post will focus on a personal matter more so than usual and perhaps shed light on just why I’m so interested in the relationship between psychology and fiction. Given the purpose of this blog, I will, as always, relate the ideas to the writing process.

Firstly, I ask you to indulge me as I recount a difficult period in my life which I rarely discuss and hope to find some catharsis in describing.

Imagine for a moment that everything you have done, worked towards and achieved thus far in life is taken from you in an instant. From that one fateful moment on, the vast majority of what you live for ceases to exist and you are stranded far from the world you once took for granted. Like Dante lost in the dark forest at the entrance to the Inferno, the straightforward path of life that you once walked has been lost.

I don’t usually make a habit of being so seemingly cryptic or melodramatic, but the despair brought on by this occurrence is profound enough to warrant such phraseology. Furthermore, the specific experience to which I am referring is – or was to me, at least – so puzzling and unexplainable at the time it happens that it baffles the sufferer for months, perhaps years until its true nature is illuminated. So, for now I will continue to describe its effects without piercing that shroud of mystery.

The goals which hovered on the horizon and beckoned you through childhood and adolescence now fall out of sight. Yes, everything has changed, but you have no idea as to why. For all of your optimism and ambitiousness, you struggle to make out the light, and when you do it only makes things worse. Now you can’t sleep, but you struggle to stay awake. Fear rears its head everywhere you never thought it would – at the pub where you used to laugh and joke with dear friends; at the football ground where you once found great inspiration in the defiant spirit of underdogs; at the theatre, or the cinema, where you used to take pleasure in sheer escapism; at the art gallery where you once marvelled at the greatness of human creativity; on the stage where you used to bare your soul; and at home, your own home, where you once knew a comfort that you may never find again.

‘And what of time?’ you ask. Well, time is nothing more than a nuisance to you now. It drags and flies whenever you don’t want it to. And yet, it is all you have – time on your hands. Time to suffer, to fester, and to grieve the loss of your livelihood. You see, you’re too scared to venture outside. And don’t think for a second that you can escape to the realm of dreams; they’re haunted now. You consult one doctor, then another, and another, and they all tell you the same thing. They don’t know what is wrong with you. But you’re sure, absolutely adamant, that your life is slipping away. Blood tests. Negative. Something is amiss.

And so months go by. You drop out of university, lose touch with friends and become isolated. Unlike Dante, you don’t have a guide to help you across the harsh terrain of this personal Hell, and there is certainly no beautiful and loving guardian angel watching over your struggle. You are alone.

Then one day, a reprieve. In the office of a psychologist, you read a list. It’s a rundown of symptoms, and you have all twenty.

Anxiety.

Unfortunately, this particular affliction is one that is widely misunderstood, and there is certainly little use in bemoaning the toll it has taken on you. However, knowing now that the bane of your life has a name, things are looking up. So you readjust your goals, throw yourself into a career which doesn’t require you to confront the outside world, and slowly regain hope. A couple of years go by, in which time you have begun to slowly reintegrate yourself into society. But all of that lost time can’t be regained, and you’re more isolated now than you ever imagined you would be. You inhabit a universe parallel to that of your old friends – they’ve moved on, forged careers, found love, and essentially outgrown you. And so the question arises, how do you adapt to this new life and find happiness once more?

Well, you start with the simple things. Those pills the doctor gave you, and those coping techniques that the therapist taught you, are enough to allow you to embrace some old passions. You may not be ready to revisit the theatre just yet, but in the meantime you can enjoy the film adaptation on DVD without suffering the misery of thinking you’ll never get back there. You can’t face getting back on stage right now, but you can enjoy playing music without fearing you’ll never be heard again. And so it goes, as you take small steps towards fulfilment.

Unfortunately, the doctor is far from satisfied with what you have achieved. He tells you that your lifestyle is deeply unhealthy, and that you need to get out there and socialise. That’s easier said than done, but eventually you find a way. You take your work to a new sanctuary; a coffee shop just a few steps from home, where you are welcomed each day by friendly faces, and your confidence grows enough that you soon find yourself sitting in the theatre and taking in a great show.

What, though, of the way you now come across to people who are unaware of your lengthy struggle? Perhaps you overcompensate; you try too hard to win them over. This will almost certainly be the case when it comes to romance. You may be a kind, decent person, but you’re so keen to show it that you come on too strong.

At this point, I’d like to fulfil my promise of relating the information shared to the process of writing fiction. As you read this, you might think that I’m overindulging in recounting my own experiences. However, consider that a truly skilled and empathetic writer builds each and every one their characters on strong foundations. The complexities of a personality arise from that character’s life experiences, both positive and negative, and that painstakingly developed personality then elicits believable behaviours.

Clearly, the art of creating such complex characters is enormously time-consuming, but ultimately vital when it comes to informing the decisions they will make during the course of their story. It’s no surprise then, that an autobiographical streak runs through most debut novels. After all, the most readily available fully-formed character model for any writer to draw inspiration from is him/herself.

So, what if a character built upon the foundation of my own life, as previously described, appears in a novel? That entire backstory needn’t be offered to the reader. Instead, this whole, intricate character, who is known from Adam by the writer, can simply behave as they would in reality. How they are then perceived by a stranger – either a fellow character or the reader – is as natural as a first impression can possibly be.

It’s a fairly simple task then, to insert ourselves into our work by use of a surrogate. Far trickier, of course, is to create character equally complex from seemingly nothing. But we don’t create anything from nothing, do we? We research, draw elements of character from innumerable sources. In my view, the memoir and the psychological case study are therefore the novelist’s best friends.

Crime authors read true crime, historical authors read history, and so on. And yet, a human character who stalks the shadows of 1920s LA and wears a detective’s badge on his hip happens to own the same grey hardware as that between the ears of a human character who fights a charge of treason in the court of a tyrannical king. Psychology, then, surely is and forever ought to be the key area of research for writers across the genre spectrum.

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